In the 19th century, Marx and Engels presented the theory stating that people commit crimes due to the struggle between social classes. It marked the emergence of various conflict theories which discussed the relations between crime, victims, and criminal justice. Although criminologists had different attitudes to the phenomenon of social conflict, all of them agreed that social elites used their power to maintain a legal system which supported their interests. Lower classes, in their turn, are labeled as criminals due to their oppressed position. Therefore, crime is inseparable from social inequality and unjust distribution of power.
Marx was the pioneer of the conflict theory, and he was the first to mark the connection between the economic theory and the relationship between social groups. According to him, the ruling class pursued its interests and exploited the workers. Due to the unequal distribution of resources, the conflict arose, and the oppressed classes began to question the authority of the capitalist elite (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015). This conflict could be resolved only by destroying capitalism and introducing communism as a just social order. Today, the Marxist approach continues developing, and new criminologists get inspired by it.

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Bonger also connected crime and capitalism, stating that crime is the result of poverty and social stratification. According to him, capitalism was distorting human nature by making them egoistically seek pleasure. He insisted that people of lower classes were committing crimes to survive as well as due to being demoralized by their position. Also, he noted that the legal system tended to treat the rich and the poor unequally, justifying the upper classes and penalizing the lower.

Other sociologists also were suggesting their opinions on the nature of the conflict. For example, Simmel perceived it as a natural part of the social life (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015). Sellin looked at the problem from the cultural perspective, stating that social groups differed in their conduct norms, leading to conflict. Vold was convinced that the struggle between classes was essential for achieving balance and stability.

In the 1960s, the conflict theory was rapidly developing due to various social factors (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015). The new generation of criminologists emerged, and they were studying the conflict from the new perspectives. These criminologists, such as Turk, Chambliss, and Quinney, focused on the behavior of authorities and their exploitation of criminal law (Akers, 2013). For example, Turk stated that the elites were likely to label someone as a criminal depending on that person’s status, not on actual behavior. Chambliss noted that the ruling classes had the privilege of avoiding persecution for their crimes, while the lower classes were penalized severely.

Overall, the conflict theories make connections between social injustice and criminal activity. The working classes commit crimes due to the economic and political oppression. The capitalist elites use their power to create laws and label the lower classes as criminals to maintain the status quo. The upper classes also commit crimes. However, they avoid punishment due to their high status and control over the bureaucratic system.

  • Akers, R. L. (2013). Criminological theories: Introduction and evaluation. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Lilly, J. R., Cullen, F.T., & Ball, R. A. (2015). Criminological theory: Context and consequences (6th edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.